TALLAHASSEE, Fla.— Ron DeSantis’ presidential aspirations needed a shot of momentum after months of tanking poll numbers and a barrage of attacks from Donald Trump.
Enter the Florida Legislature.
Republican supermajorities in both the Florida House and Senate handed the Florida governor a huge slate of culture-war focused victories that are the type of policies that helped propel DeSantis through the Republican ecosystem and onto the national stage.
For much of that rise, however, there was a stark difference: He was not facing direct attacks from Trump, the clear early 2024 front-runner for the Republican nomination and de facto head of the Republican Party.
Those attacks have tarnished DeSantis’ once untouchable political reputation with conservatives and arguably put him in the weakest position he has been in since taking office, just weeks before what most expect will be an early June presidential launch.
But his supporters predict the script is about to flip. A Republican Legislature that greets DeSantis with equal parts support and fear handed him huge wins in Tallahassee that will now turn into a high-profile victory lap across Florida in the weeks leading up to the expected launch. A near daily dose of DeSantis back in his element, supporters hope, will help him regain his footing.
“The ‘DeSantis bad month’ is much more like spin from the Trump campaign that has been repeated by some reporters than reality on the ground in the states that matter,” said Alex Stroman, former executive director of the Republican Party of South Carolina who met in person with the governor at the Republican Party of New Hampshire’s annual Amos Tuck Dinner last month. “DeSantis had great visits to New Hampshire and South Carolina, huge crowds, and did what he needed to do to show his personality.”
DeSantis himself seemed emboldened Friday afternoon when meeting with reporters shortly after lawmakers completed the 2023 legislative session, which handed DeSantis nearly every item on his wish list.
For months, DeSantis has scoffed at questions about his political aspirations. And while he did not answer them directly Friday, for the first time he did not meet them with overt annoyance and even signaled something could be forthcoming.
“I think I was starting to get asked about this years ago. But I was in my first term as governor, and we were doing good things,” he said. “A lot of things we were doing that I think put me on the map because I was getting criticized for it, especially during Covid.”
“What happens in the future, look, people — we will get to that relatively soon,” he later added. “You either have to put up or shut up on that.”
DeSantis won his 2022 re-election bid by a near 20-point margin, which amplified him nationally and further solidified his political mandate in the state. In response, Republican majorities handed him wins this year, including a ban on children attending adult-themed drag shows; an expansion of the state’s death penalty; a long-sought provision aimed at weakening Democratic-leaning public unions; a ban on colleges and universities from spending money on diversity, equality and inclusion initiatives; a ban on abortion after six weeks of pregnancy; legislation that no longer requires gun owners to have a permit when carrying a concealed firearm; and a handful of bills that furthered DeSantis yearlong fight with Disney.
DeSantis championed each proposal to varying degrees, and each easily falls under the overarching mantra that has defined his political persona: “Florida is where woke goes to die.”
“This is the type of stuff that not only Republican base voters are going to respond to, but this is the type of stuff Republicans should have taken care of a long time ago,” said Republican Sen. state Blaise Ingoglia, who is among DeSantis’ biggest legislative supporters. “If there was ever a portfolio of successes and wins to launch a next step, this is it.”
Still, as DeSantis prepares to take a victory lap, there is little doubt he has work to do if he hopes to close the gap with Trump. Through most of 2022, DeSantis ran neck-and-neck with the former president in public polling. But after Trump formally announced he was again running for the White House, he began regularly going after DeSantis, whom he had previously endorsed, and opened up a significant double-digit lead in most early polling.
“What momentum?” said Taylor Budowich, who runs the pro-Trump super PAC MAGA, Inc. “The floor has fallen out from under Ron DeSantis’ shadow campaign, his poll numbers have plummeted further with every passing week, donors are jumping ship every day, and his political committee is burning through cash like a thief with a stolen credit card.”
DeSantis has not yet launched a presidential campaign, but a super PAC called Never Back Down has so far served as attack dog for him and run ads hyping his potential run. It has raised tens of millions of dollars to encourage DeSantis to get in the race, but has not yet had to report publicly, so it’s unclear exactly how much the group has raised. On top of that, a state-level political committee known as Friends of Ron DeSantis has more than $85 million in the bank, which will likely be transferred to an outside super PAC in the coming weeks.
DeSantis’ support of the six-week abortion ban, and his culture war-focus more broadly, did prompt some GOP rainmakers to say they were reconsidering supporting DeSantis financially, but his team is confident they have generally stopped the bleeding with current and potential donors.
“I think you can say for the most part they have alleviated concerns and it’s full steam ahead,” said a Republican consultant. “There are a few holdouts or converts, but you can safely say lack of money won’t be a DeSantis concern.”
Supporters are also brushing off DeSantis’ huge early endorsement lead, which includes the former president racking up 11 endorsements from the Florida legislative delegation and more than 50 congressional endorsements overall. It’s early, DeSantis-backers argue, with few voters paying attention, and even fewer caring about endorsements from sometimes obscure members of Congress.
Rep. Laurel Lee, R-Fla., who is so far DeSantis’ only endorser from Florida in Congress, said the governor has “led the way on conservative policy, economic growth and fighting for Florida families,” and that once he officially runs for president, “his record and message will resonate with Republican primary voters across the country.”
“Gov. DeSantis is playing the long game. He has methodically built up a proven conservative record that, combined with his ability to not only win elections but demoralize and destroy the left, will president Republican voters with a stark contrast in the primaries,” said Gioncarlo Sopo, a Republican media strategist from Miami who does work on national races.
“At this stage,” he joked, “no one outside of The Swamp cares about an endorsement from Rep. Beavis McButtersworth.”